Why would Jesus have been tempted to worship Satan?

Q. When Satan took Jesus up the the heights and promised him the world if he would fall down and worship him…why would Jesus have been tempted to worship Satan?

Philip Augustin Immelraet,
Philip Augustin Immelraet, “The Temptation of Christ,” 1663

We do usually think of “temptation” as what happens when our desire for something becomes so irresistible that we’re inclined to make some moral compromise to get that thing. That picture does apply to the other two temptations that the devil offered Jesus, though it doesn’t quite apply to the one you’re asking about. (The temptation of Jesus by Satan is described near the beginning of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

We can understand, for example, how Jesus would have had a strong desire for food after fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. Ordinarily there’s no compromise involved in satisfying a legitimate physical need within the limits of moderation. But in this case Jesus had been called to an extended time of fasting so that he could consider the implications of the voice he’d just heard at his baptism, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was called, in other words, to reflect on the nature of his calling to be the Messiah, which most interpreters say was confirmed definitively for him by this voice at his baptism. So it would have been a compromise to break that fast prematurely just because he was hungry, or just to prove that he had God’s favor. (“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread,” the devil had said.)

Similarly, leaping off the highest point of the temple and landing safely on the ground might actually have been something that appealed to Jesus. He was a 30-year-old single man and we can well imagine that he might have gone in for extreme sports! It would be like bungee jumping, with the assurance of God’s power of deliverance providing the same confidence and security as a bungee cord. However, Jesus recognized that it would have been improper to put himself in danger just to prove that God would protect him. We are supposed to do our part to care for ourselves, and we’re supposed to trust in God by faith, without needing proof of God’s care when we’re not in any real danger.

But the third temptation was different. Jesus wouldn’t have found it desirable to worship Satan. So what the devil actually tried to tempt him with was power over all the kingdoms of the world. “Just think of all the good you could do if you had that power,” was the subtle lure. Satan’s pitch was that worshiping him would simply be a “necessary evil,” a means to a desirable end. The fallacy, of course, is that if we compromise to get into a position of power, then we’re compromised once we get there, so we can’t do the good we intended. This would certainly have been the case for Jesus if he’d tried to get power by literally selling his soul to the devil.

So the takeaway is that we aren’t always “tempted” by things that seem desirable, attractive, or alluring. Sometimes unpleasant things “tempt” us because we think of them as a means to an end. But God always has a better means to any legitimate end, a means that doesn’t require moral compromise.

What helps our faith grow besides Bible reading and worship?

Q. Paul says in Romans that “faith comes by hearing the Word of God.” But some people don’t read their Bibles, and they don’t attend worship to hear the Bible preached, and then they lack faith. Are there other places in Scripture that tell of more things God uses to increase our faith?

What’s sometimes called “Bible intake”—reading the Word, hearing it preached, reflecting on it with others, etc.—is one of the “spiritual disciplines” by which we invest in our relationship with God and so build our faith. But there are many other spiritual disciplines that also serve this purpose, and they too are described in the Scriptures.

One of these is encountering God in the beauty of His creation. Many interpreters describe Psalm 19 as speaking of “the two books of God,” nature and Scripture. That psalm says that creation has a “voice” that we can hear, and that from it we can learn more about God. Romans says similarly that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” Not everyone heeds this “voice,” but it’s there for those who have ears to hear, and sometimes it surprises people.

Photo by Priscilla Smith
Photo by Priscilla Smith

Silence and solitude are also spiritual disciplines by which people can seek God. Psalm 131 is an example of this: “ I have calmed and quieted myself.” God says in Isaiah, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Too often, as God also says in Isaiah, people will “have none of it.” But sometimes people experience involuntary silence and solitude, for example, when recuperating from an accident or illness, and they find that God meets them there even though they weren’t particularly looking for Him.

Devotional reading in books other than the Bible is something else that builds our faith (for example, biographies of people whose lives are an example to us, or the reflections of godly saints throughout the ages). I once argued, in the course of a sermon series I gave on spiritual disciplines, that Gideon’s faith had been strengthened by the equivalent in his day of devotional “reading”: he’d heard stories passed down through the generations about God’s works, so that he was able to reply to the angel, “If the Lord is with us, where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about?” Knowing what God has done in the lives of others in the past helps build our own sense of expectation of what God can do in our own lives and our own time.

Another spiritual discipline is journaling, recording the events of our lives and then looking back on them over time to recognize God’s hand in those events, which we might not have been able to see while living in the midst of them. The book of Nehemiah is arguably that man’s own journal, in which he records events and reflects on them, interspersing prayers in light of his reflections (“Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love”).

One more way I’ll mention of increasing our faith is to pray faith-sized prayers. That is, when we have a concern about a situation, or an ambition to do something for God in this world, we pray for as much of it as we currently have the faith to believe for. If God has truly prompted this concern or godly ambition, that prayer will be answered in such a way as to encourage us to believe and pray for greater and greater things. I think this is what Jesus meant when his disciples asked him, “Lord, increase our faith!” and he replied, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” In other words, rather than trying to get more faith, use the faith you already have and discover what great things it can accomplish.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Really any spiritual discipline—any of the time-honored ways in which believers invest in their relationships with God—will help a person’s faith to grow. That’s because faith is ultimately trust and confidence in God, and the better we know God, the more we understand that we can safely trust in Him.

Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?

Q. This is a sort of church and state question that is more theoretical than anything. What I’m wondering is if Christianity is true, and God made the universe according to his nature such that there are objective moral absolutes and so on, should Christians try in any way to impose a Christian moral code on people who don’t believe? In other words, if the best thing for human flourishing is to live in alignment with our God-ordained natures, to what degree should Christians try to make laws that outwardly compel people to live according to more or less Christian values (for their own good)?

For starters, let me say that I believe there’s a practical problem with the  approach you’re asking about. Passing a law forbidding something doesn’t effectively prevent it, and passing a law requiring something doesn’t effectively make it happen. That’s because people typically don’t obey a law if they really don’t want to do what it says, or if they want to do what it says not to do. Fear of punishment is only a partial deterrent.

The classic example of this in the American experience is Prohibition. It did not compel Americans to become teetotalers. No one knows the actual effect it had on alcohol production and consumption, because it made those things very difficult to measure. But the general understanding is that consumption went down at first because supplies were limited, but as soon as illegal supplies came on line, consumption increased steadily. On the other hand, there was a significant and measurable decrease in alcohol consumption in the years before Prohibition, through social influences rather than legal force. I think that’s instructive. The most effective measures were persuasive, not compulsory. In our own day, organizations such as M.A.D.D. are having a renewed effectiveness through such persuasion. So this is something of a parable that Christians everywhere, and particularly in America, should bear in mind, as a reminder of the limits of legal force and the power of social forces.

In fact, I think your question leads directly to another one: For any given behavior we want to discourage, are we really better off passing a law against it? Or are we risking driving people who want to continue that behavior into the hands of criminals, strengthening their enterprises? Some things we simply must forbid, and enforce those sanctions as fully as possible, for the sake of social order and the protection of life and safety. I’m not advocating anarchy here. But we do have to consider that it may be better to allow certain things to remain legal and work to address their causes, rather than try to pass laws against them. In fact, even for things that unquestionably should be illegal, the laws against them are only a preliminary step. Those activities won’t go away, either, until their causes are addressed.

The Bible itself teaches us the capabilities and limits of the law. In arguing that Gentiles shouldn’t be expected to follow the Law of Moses, Paul writes in his letters that it did serve the functions of teaching and restraint. It illustrated for people how they should live, and it restrained, with strict penalties, the worst cases of personal injury and social disorder. But Paul also says pointedly that the Law was not capable of giving people the ability or desire to live in the way it specified. That depended instead on the transforming effects of life in a community that was living in covenant relationship with God, and ultimately on the gift of the Holy Spirit to that community and its members.

In our own day, societies can use all aspects of their “law,” from criminal penalties to features of their tax codes, to discourage some behaviors and incentivize others. In the process, they will teach, because this provides a picture of how they believe people should live. Allowing a tax deduction for charitable donations shows that the society encourages generosity to those in need. Creating and enforcing speed limits and other traffic regulations shows that the society does not want its members to endanger themselves or others by driving heedlessly. Societies also use laws to restrain. Having much more serious penalties for things like murder and robbery shows that such activities are dangerous and antisocial above all.

But this isn’t actually compelling people to live in a certain way. People will continue to do whatever they believe they can get away with until the causes of behavior are addressed, and that takes a lot more than passing a law. So the bottom line is that I don’t think we can “outwardly compel” people to live in a certain way through laws, though they can be an important first step.

But here’s the other side of the coin. In a democracy, people get the laws they work for. Otherwise, they get laws they haven’t worked for. So if Christians really do believe that, by God’s very design, certain activities are harmful and destructive, while others are beneficial and life-giving, then they need to be out there in the public-policy mix, at the very least trying to get positive things incentivized and negative things discouraged.

But I need to state some further qualifiers:

• I’m not talking about creating a theocracy, in which Christians take power and enforce the law of God (as they understand it) as the law of the land. For one thing, every time this has been attempted in church history, it has been a disaster. But in more theological terms, I believe that as redemptive history unfolded, the days of theocracy ended when Jesus introduced the new covenant and the people of God became a multinational community. Followers of Jesus now have a primary loyalty to the kingdom of God that is breaking into our world, but an important and continuing secondary loyalty to their own nations, to help them live up to their own highest ideals, consistently with the values of the kingdom of God. As an American, for example, I believe that I should support the ideals of democracy and civil liberties, while at the same time critiquing American culture’s extreme individualism, which (as social observers have been documenting) has caused narcissism to flourish and undermined our social fabric.

• What I am advocating is being in the mix. Pick your battles. Work for what matters most. To reach particular goals, form strategic alliances with people and organizations who might not agree with you about everything. In fact, they might agree with you about only one thing. But if that’s the thing you’re working for, you’ve got the potential to create a limited partnership with them.

• If what you’re really after is what you believe is best for people—human flourishing—then take care that your campaign, through its tone and tactics, doesn’t have destructive side effects. That would be tragically counterproductive.

I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect to be able to pass a comprehensive set of laws that will compel everyone, at least outwardly, to live as Christians believe people should. But if you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God. Probably the best place to start is with practical contemporary expressions of, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Plenty to work for there.

Thanks for your thoughtful question! I hope these reflections give you further food for thought.

This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.
This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.

Does God sometimes answer prayers before they’re prayed?

“Liberation of St. Peter” by Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734). Peter was set free from prison while, or possibly even before, the other believers met to pray for his release. Does this kind of thing happen because God is outside of time?

Q. I’ve had the experience of praying for a need and then talking to the individual afterwards to find that the prayer was answered a few days earlier. Kinda interesting in a way; makes me think of our God being outside of time and not limited by it. It would seem to a skeptic that prayer was not needed in the first place and it was going to happen that way anyway but I feel a sense of amazement instead. What do you think? I realize that this is not usual; a need lies before us, we pray, and our prayer is answered in future time (can take years in some cases). I’m also aware of Peter’s release in Acts but curious what I might learn from you.

One possible explanation of your experience is the one you suggest, that God acted in response to the prayer but, being outside of time, was able to implement that response at a point in time prior to the prayer. Another explanation would be that for some reason God stirred up the prayer even though its object had already been realized.

I do believe that the initiative in prayer is God’s. Whether God simply wants to commune with us in deeper fellowship for a time, or whether God wants to accomplish something in partnership with us, He puts what is often called a “burden” on our hearts to pray. When this burden has to do with another person’s need (as in the case you describe), then I believe that God summons us to pray for that need for at least a couple of reasons.

For one thing, at least as I see it, God delights to work in partnership with us to such an extent that He will even choose to answer a prayer in a way that we have suggested, to give us a tangible part in His work. God, being omniscient, knows all possible ways to meet the need, and so is able to see how it can be done “our way” (so to speak), presuming that this path can indeed be followed consistently with His character and purposes. In this God is not humoring us, but honoring us with a genuine part in helping to bring about His purposes through prayer.

Another reason why God would lead us to pray for a need that He already intended to meet—and this is the one that relates more directly to your experience—would be so that when the need was met, it would be clear that God had done it. That way the prayed-for person wouldn’t just be helped practically, they’d also be assured of their Heavenly Father’s love and care for them. This might help explain your recent experience. God might have wanted your friend to know with confidence that He was the one who’d met the need and that He’d done this out of love. That’s the conclusion I’d draw if I learned that someone had been led to pray for me about a situation after it had already been resolved.

The case you mention from the Bible, of Peter in Acts, is similar, except that in that case the prayer was answered right while it was being prayed. Peter was miraculously freed from prison and he went to a house where the followers of Jesus were gathered and were already praying for him. (Depending on how you read the chronology of the account, however, it could even be argued that the angel came and started setting Peter free before this prayer meeting had quite gotten started.) One of the things that gives us confidence that God has done something in answer to prayer is that the answer comes while we are praying. I’d argue that God sends the answer at this time to give us the assurance of His love and care for us and of His involvement in the particulars of our lives.

So the timing of an answer to prayer can accomplish something further beyond meeting a practical need in a person’s life. If the answer comes during or even before the prayer, that’s an indication that it’s truly an answer from God.

And even if, as you also describe, it’s only after much prayer that an answer comes, we should still remember what Jesus said, that we should persist in the confidence that God loves us and is listening. “Won’t God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won’t he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them.” Sometimes the needs we’re aware of form only part of a set of complex, long-term, big-picture goals that God is working away at steadily. Once those needs are finally met, we recognize how this necessarily had to be done within a larger context. 

What is a “man of the Trinity”?

Q. Several years back, a few of my close Christian brothers and I met a guy who was gifted, it was said, with the ability to prophesy. (That still exists, right?) If someone were to prophesy over you and tell you, “When I look at you, I see a man of the Trinity,” how would you interpret that?

First, I do believe that God still gives some believers the gift of prophesy. That is, God gives them insights about the character and gifting of a person or group to encourage them, and also gives them insights about the likely future consequences of the course that a person or group is on, either to warn or encourage them. But believers also have a responsibility to “weigh” what self-described or popularly-accepted prophets say, assessing it by the full counsel of the Scriptures and by the community’s collective wisdom. “Prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

As for what a (presumably genuine) prophet might mean by a “man of the Trinity,” I suspect that this involves more than just a belief in God as three-in-one. I would take it to be describing someone who had a relationship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know that in some mysterious way, God is three persons in one being. A man or woman of the Trinity, I’d say, would know each of these persons individually, without in any way compromising the unity that they have together.

In other words, such a person would know God as their kind, loving, generous, care-giving but also disciplining heavenly Father. (“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and corrects each one he accepts as his child.”)

Such a person would also know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and in addition as their brother and friend. (“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”)

And a man or woman of the Trinity would also know the Holy Spirit as comforter, companion, helper, counselor, and advocate—all the various translations of the term paraclete that’s used at the place in the gospel of John where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit shed a bit more light on the role that the Spirit is supposed to play in our lives.

So your question provides, for all of us, a good point of reflection. How well do I know each of the persons of the Trinity? Do I know God as Father, or do I have “father issues” that make me keep my distance from a God I regard as stern, harsh, and remote? Do I appreciate Jesus primarily for something he did for me 2,000 years ago, or can I say with the hymn writer, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? Is the Holy Spirit primarily a mysterious force to me, or do I speak and pray to the Holy Spirit and recognize the voice I hear in response? (If you’re not used to praying to the Holy Spirit, consider as examples the many hymns and songs that do this: “Gracious Spirit, Dwell With Me”; “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”; “Spirit of the Living God”; “Spirit Fall”; “Breathe On Us.”)

May we all become “men and women of the Trinity”!

Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham's three visitors.)
Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham’s three visitors.)

What if I’ve never had “that moment” of asking Christ into my heart?

Q. A lot of believers have “that moment” when they officially asked Christ into their heart. I never had a moment like that. I was blessed to grow up in a Christ-filled home, go to a Christian elementary school, be involved in the Church, etc. I did profession of faith as a teenager, went on a missions trip to Peru, and I was even baptized 4 years ago. Is it “wrong” that I never had a “moment” like so many believers have?

There are two main paradigms or models that Christians have used over the centuries to envision a person’s entrance into the life of faith.

The first is the conversion paradigm. It’s a binary model, expressed in terms of before vs. after, out vs. in. You’re lost in darkness, but then you have “that moment” when you ask Christ into your heart and afterwards you’re walking in the light. Saved. Everything is immediately different. “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart,” as the old hymn puts it.

This may be the paradigm we’re most familiar with in our contemporary experience. However, it’s actually the one that has been used less commonly over the whole course of church history. The pilgrimage model could be called the “majority view” of Christians over the centuries. It’s progressive rather than binary. It envisions a person coming closer and closer to Christ through a series of steps over time. Within this model, it’s often hard to pinpoint an exact “moment” that determines precisely when a person comes “in.”

Probably the best-known expression of this model is the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. But many classic hymns express it as well, for example, “Draw Me Nearer” by Fanny Crosby:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith
And be closer drawn to Thee.

In my experience as a pastor, I’ve observed that people who become Christians under a conversion model often realize afterwards that God has been at work in their lives in many ways beforehand to lead them to the moment of conversion. There are specific experiences they point to as illustrations of this. They also take many steps of commitment later on that they sometimes feel are as significant as asking Christ into their hearts was in the first place. I’d say that these people are applying a pilgrimage model to their experience and finding it more meaningful and explanatory than the conversion model alone.

I’d encourage you to apply this same pilgrimage model to your own experience. It seems to me that God has been making what are sometimes called the “means of grace” available to you from an early age (Christian family, church, school, etc.) and that you have been using them fully to draw closer to God. If you really needed to nail down “that moment” in your life, you could point to either your profession of faith or your baptism as a time of definite commitment or conversion. But I think you’re actually already describing your entrance into the life of faith in terms of pilgrimage. I don’t think you really need to “translate” it into a conversion paradigm. You just need to recognize that the pilgrimage paradigm is a valid and time-honored understanding among Christians.

There’s a great danger in stressing conversion over against pilgrimage. I’ve heard preachers say, when “preaching for a verdict” (as it’s sometimes called—urging commitment to Christ), that if you can’t name the exact day and hour when you accepted Christ, then you’re not really a Christian and you need to get saved now. I think this can actually undermine the assurance of salvation that people would otherwise have if we encouraged them instead to think back over their lives and recognize the ways in which God had been “drawing them nearer.”

I think that profession of faith and baptism are excellent and appropriate ways for us to express a commitment that we’re growing into. But our assurance shouldn’t rest on having done those things, nor should it rest on having asked Jesus into our heart at a definite time. Instead, our assurance of salvation should rest on our recognition of God’s activity in drawing us to Himself, and our acknowledgment that we have been responding positively at each step along the way. We can be confident that “he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” as Paul writes to the Philippians. And in that sense we’re definitely “in,” with or without “that moment.”

An illustration from Pilgrim's Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he's
An illustration from Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he’s “in”? Or is it when he comes to the cross and his burden rolls away? Or is it at some other time during his pilgrimage? Or is he just on his way in all along?

Was Jesus ever in Egypt after being there as a child?

Q. Was Jesus in Egypt anytime after his first entry?

Thank you for your question. Nothing in the Bible or in Christian tradition suggests that Jesus ever returned to Egypt during his lifetime on earth after being taken there for safety as a child. (For more information about that, see this post: How long did Jesus live in Egypt?)

A Coptic image of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to Egypt.
A Coptic image of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to Egypt.